By Hrach Melkumian, Karine Kalantarian and Ruzanna Khachatrian
President Robert Kocharian has failed to secure a landslide reelection and will go into a risky run-off with Stepan Demirchian on March 5, the first nationwide results of the Armenian presidential ballot showed on Thursday. Demirchian aides said, meanwhile, that the leader of the opposition People’s Party of Armenia (HZhK) will challenge even that outcome.
In a major upset for Kocharian, the Central Election Commission announced that with most of the ballots counted, the 48-year-old incumbent won 49.8 percent of the vote, slightly less than the 50 percent plus one benchmark required to win outright. Demirchian, according to the CEC, received 27.7 percent of the vote, while another leading opposition candidate, Artashes Geghamian, came in third with 17 percent.
The official figures were announced by CEC chairman Artak Sahradian on the state-run Armenian Public Television at 1800 local time, several hours later than was required by the law. Election officials blamed the delay on a continuing heavy snowfall which they said blocked road communication with remote electoral districts and thus slowed the tabulation process. But it remained unclear why Armenia’s most mountainous and least accessible Syunik province completed the count much earlier than Yerevan.
“I have informed the country’s leadership that we are going into a run-off,” Sahradian said, adding that Kocharian’s reaction to the breaking news was “normal.”
Kocharian’s campaign manager, Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, sought to put a brave face on the development, saying he remains confident about the president’s victory. “We consider this to be a vote of confidence in the incumbent president,” he told a late-night news conference. “Getting such a high percentage of votes in a struggle with eight candidates is a good result.”
But Sarkisian did admit that the Kocharian camp made some mistakes and will have to change its strategy. “Although we were confident that our candidate will win in the first round, we probably failed to fully take into account the existing reality,” he said. “The techniques used by our rivals apparently proved effective. However, we are confident that we will win the run-off.”
Initial vote results from different parts of the country gave Kocharian a huge lead over his main challengers, suggesting that he will not need a run-off to secure a second five-year term in office. In Syunik, for example, official figures gave Kocharian nearly 70 percent of the vote.
The subsequent, nationwide results came as thousands of Demirchian supporters rallied outside the CEC offices in protest against alleged vote irregularities which have marred what many see as a crucial test of Armenia’s democratic credentials.
The possibility of a second round was first publicly acknowledged in the morning by Aghvan Vartanian, a leading member of the pro-Kocharian Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun). But he insisted that “the incumbent president has a substantial lead over all other candidates.”
Vartanian also denied the opposition allegations of vote rigging, saying that it was an “exemplary electoral struggle.” But proxies of the opposition candidates claimed the opposite.
“We must not recognize the results of these elections,” said Aghasi Arshakian, a parliament deputy allied with Geghamian.
According to Demirchian’s campaign chief Grigor Harutiunian, Kocharian fared much worse than is presented by the CEC. “After all that we have seen Kocharian has no moral right to participate in the elections,” he told RFE/RL.
“We are convinced that [Demirchian] won in the first round,” Harutiunian added. “What second round are they talking about?”